The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘Newcomers,’ Immigration, and Assimilation in America

Handing out flags at a naturalization ceremony in Oakland, Calif., in 2013. (Reuters photo: Robert Galbraith)

There’s been a mini-firestorm over the fact that Bari Weiss, an opinion contributor and op-ed editor at the New York Times, playfully celebrated Mirai Nagasu’s recent Olympic triumph by tweeting a line from the musical Hamilton: “Immigrants: they get the job done.”

Why was this line so monstrously offensive, you ask? Good question. Nagasu was born in southern California, not overseas. It is her parents who are immigrants. As I understand it, Weiss’s offense is that she “otherized” Nagasu by describing her as an immigrant. It should go without saying that Weiss clearly meant no harm by her remark. In fact, it was very much in keeping with what I don’t think is unfair to call her zeal for immigration.

Granted, you could say that Weiss’s views on immigration are immaterial. The reason she’s being pilloried is that it’s supposedly insensitive to describe a U.S.-born person as an immigrant. But is it? A cursory glance at the immigration literature reveals that it’s not at all uncommon for the native-born children of immigrant parents to be described as “second-generation immigrants.” I encourage you to type that phrase into your favorite search engine. Here is one particularly choice line, from a scholarly article on the subject:

For several decades, scholars of immigrant adaptation have been interested in studying the U.S.-born children of immigrants, commonly referred to as second-generation immigrants.

I’ve never particularly cared for the term “second-generation immigrant,” and I avoid using it myself. On the rare occasions I’ve been described as an immigrant, I’ve demurred, on the grounds that, like Nagasu, I was born in the U.S. Nevertheless, there’s no question that second-generation Americans are routinely described as second-generation immigrants, often in the spirit of celebrating newcomers.

Speaking of “newcomers,” it’s the term Tomás Jiménez, a sociologist at Stanford University, used to describe immigrants and the children of at least one immigrant parent in his important new book The Other Side of Assimilation. Jiménez is one of the most nuanced, thoughtful scholars of immigration-driven diversity and cultural change I’ve come across. His recent work emphasizes that assimilation is not just a straight-line process in which newcomers come to resemble established Americans, his term for the U.S.-born children of two U.S.-born parents. Rather, it is a relational process, which “involves back-and-forth adjustments in daily life by both newcomers and established individuals as they come into contact with each other.” Right now, newcomers represent roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population, a number that is set to rise considerably. Yet in some regions, such as Silicon Valley, the focus of Jiménez’s new book, the newcomer share is much higher, and there’s sometimes just as much adjustment on the part of the established as there is from newcomers. The growth of the newcomer population is sure to mean a lot of creative tension, and in some cases just plain old tension. The Other Side of Assimilation is a stimulating guide to what’s to come.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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